The Super Bowl always comes as something of an eye-opener for those of us who inhabit the bi-coastal bubble that is advertising. For all our dreams of groundbreaking executions and clever socially-driven engagement, the winning formula is clear: employ dogs – as USA Today commented “for sure, ads with dogs had the most bark”
Much as this depresses me, I would only be reinforcing the out-of-touch-with-real-America stereotype to complain about the lack of ambition exhibited by these as well as most of the other spots aired during Super Bowl XLVI.
One thing that I can legitimately complain about (and did so last year) is how maddeningly self-referential Super Bowl advertising is. When making Super Bowl spots, we have a straightforward task – to take advantage of the fact that we have the single biggest TV audience of the year to present our clients’ products and services in a compelling context. A common way to achieve this (whether explicitly or more subtly) is with reference to popular culture – to demonstrate the relevance of these products and services by aligning them with other things that the audience finds interesting. Whatever your feelings about the finished executions, the Honda ‘CRV‘s day out’, Audi ‘Vampire Party’ and Best Buy ‘Game Changers’ spots were designed to achieve this.
What I don’t understand is when brands choose, instead of referencing a common cultural touch-point, to reference other advertising (particularly when they’re paying $4million for the privilege. The point is to engage the mass audience, not the advertising nerds but you could be forgiven for not realizing this watching some of the spots. This was true of Motorola’s labored 1984 parody from last year and the trap that others fell into this year.
Volkswagen gave us an unremarkable but inoffensive story of a dog motivated to get in shape so that it can chase the new Beetle. But then they felt the need to append an irrelevant Star Wars riff, recalling last year’s mini-vada spot. Why? VW has not built a Star Wars property, Luke doesn’t drive a Passat, it does not have special edition Star Wars products (like Adidas). Last year, VW created an engaging spot bringing to life charming truths of family life. Star Wars was referenced but it was not the focus. This year, rather than continuing with the theme of insights into family life to give us a similarly heart-warming spot, VW decided that Star Wars was the thing to take forward, leading them create an irrelevant and potentially confusing adjunct to this year’s message.
Though it did not necessarily detract from the spot itself (which I thought very powerful), I also found Chrysler’s winking reference to Hal Riney’s ‘Morning in America’ spots for Ronald Reagan a little to knowing.
But self-indulgence is not just about referencing old advertising. Another example of indulgent self-reference was to be found in Bud Light’s ‘Weego’ spot. A good showing on the USA Today Ad Meter was guaranteed by the appearance of a dog, but mutt-aside this was a spot entirely about Bud Light’s tagline. A tagline that as pointed out by the very smart Seth Gaffney @elgaffney isn’t even that good.
Of course the naval-gazing wasn’t restricted to the game itself. Many of the advertisers also put strenuous effort into pre-marketing the marketing (that’s right, instead of taking the opportunity to talk to consumers about a new product, service or offer ie. something that would actually benefit their brands or businesses, many chose to tell us that they had taken a spot during the game and that we should pay attention to it). This led, among others, to VW putting together a film of dogs barking the Imperial March from Star Wars (as it turned out this had only very tangential relevance to their spot) and Kia to create 5hr-long teaser for their 60 second spot. Can this be a good use of anyone’s time?
As a cultural phenomenon, the Super Bowl is pretty unique in that the advertising plays a role in the experience. But let’s not kid ourselves. Having a massive audience watch the game is different to having a massive audience engage with your spot or indeed your brand. And while people undoubtedly pay a little more attention to ads than they may otherwise (for one thing they can’t skip them), as advertisers we must still compete with their consumption of food and drink and the conversations they are having with friends and family. It’s probably wishful thinking to hope that we might look beyond the dogs and babies but we must stop thinking that people care about a spot we may have run in the past (or about advertising in general) and take the opportunity to make them laugh, touch them, shock them, pull on their heart-strings and generally add to their experience of the Super Bowl.
This year’s Cannes Lions mark a shift from the age of celebrated creatives to one of collective creators
With the exception of the wonderfully written and realized Old Spice campaign which picked up the Film Grand Prix, one could easily view this year’s (and last year’s for that matter) Cannes victors as marking a definitive shift in the DNA of great communications.
If the last 50 years of our industry has been beholden to the talents of great individuals (epitomized by Don Draper who magics award-winning ideas out of the bottom of glasses of scotch), campaigns such as AMV’s ‘Choose a different ending’, DDB Stockholm’s ‘Fun Theory’ or Crispin Porter’s ‘Twelpforce’ are characterized by the collective labors of broader teams of creators.
W+K have shown with the Old Spice and Nike ‘Write The Future’ campaigns that the ability to agonize over a 60 second film, to hone and craft every frame and make every split second a delight remains an important skill. But at the same time, such opportunities are increasingly thin on the ground. Spending this much time and effort is only worthwhile if we can ensure that the content will be consumed in a set form; but as we know this is increasingly not the case with consumers assuming control. Just as brands are becoming used to consumers interacting with them on their own terms, so too must agencies.
And this is creating a different approach to idea generation. Where advertising was judged on the basis of its visual and verbal execution, this year’s Cannes winners stand out thanks to the quality of their core ideas, applied to our changing media landscape. A chalk-toting robot which allows consumers to participate in the Tour De France, a platform which enables us to get tech support more efficiently, an experience that gives us an understanding of the causes and consequences of knife violence rather than simply telling us that it’s a bad idea. All of these ideas were the work of creative minds though not the excusive preserve of a conventional creative department. Indeed, without the up-front input of broader teams of creators: media specialists, technologists and industrial designers, none of these inspiring campaigns would ever have seen the light of day.
After I attended the Global Leadership Summit at Best Buy last month, I wrote a piece arguing that ‘the connected world’ (the holy grail for technology and media companies) is not something that can be easily defined and packaged (much less explained via traditional communication channels). Rather it is a complex ecosystem of kit, connections and content allowing individuals to better engage with their passions and interests through technology.
As marketers, this is complexity we’re facing more often as we find ourselves trying to present the increasingly complicated user-experiences enabled by these connected technologies. And the channels we have conventionally relied on; dependent on reductive thinking and neat propositions are ill-suited to the richer, more multi-faceted experiences required to bring them to life.
As if to demonstrate this point, this inforgraphic by Section Design shows how the iPad (the ultimate converged device) does basically everything making it (as apple have demonstrated with their advertising) equally difficult to define.
An understanding of people, not just technology is the key to unlocking the value of ‘The Connected World’
(Fantastic) illustration by Jez Burrows
As we know, we are living in an ever more connected world where increasingly malleable and portable content and smart devices are causing consumers to demand more connected solutions. But who will help consumers to navigate this landscape? Will Google make IPTV a mass market proposition or will the cable providers get their act together before it’s too late? Does Apple have the mobile internet sewn up via self-contained apps or will Google’s browser-based apps prevail? The big question being asked in the boardrooms of CE manufacturers, content distributors, broadband and airtime providers and technology and entertainment retailers (and I have been party to a few) is how to leverage these trends in order to sell lucrative eco-systems of devices, connections, services and content and reap the consequent revenue and margin benefits.
But currently progress is slow as everyone searches for a ‘silver bullet’, a single value proposition which will explain the connected world to consumers and help them to understand its potential in order to unlock their spending.
This is the wrong approach because it supposes that ‘the connected world’ is something that can be neatly categorized and packaged when in fact it’s a multi-layered collection of technology, devices and applications: a complex eco-system which is radically changing almost every part of our lives. This complexity will be its key strength: the connected world’s ability to provide a million different benefits to a million different people will drive uptake. But this also makes summing up what it does in a single statement that everyone can understand and find compelling impossible.
The PC-accessed internet wasn’t popularized by an all-encompassing proposition which someone defined and suddenly everyone understood. It was a messy grass-roots phenomenon: the cumulative effect of millions of people finding solutions to individual needs using online tools (communicating via email and IM, learning via educational resources online, shopping via internet stores etc.)
So rather than spending our time naval-gazing and agonizing over the set of words which will unlock the potential of the connected world, we need to take a consumer-focused approach in order to show individuals how it can address their specific needs and sell the products and services required to make this happen.
The key is to present the connected world as a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself. Fundamentally, it is a tool that can help people get more from life (whether they want to work smarter, connect with their networks, engage more with their favourite TV shows or sports teams, better research their school project etc etc). Fundamentally, the key to unlocking the value of the connected world is less about understanding every possible permutation delivered the technology and more about understanding what consumers want from life.
I have been very inspired by Jeff Jarvis’s thinking around the creation of businesses which act as platforms for other businesses to prosper. The ultimate example is Google whose advertising platform benefits individual sites and blogs who earn money for themselves (and Google) by attracting an audience. This revenue creates an incentive to deliver more content and attract a greater audience, which provides the site (and of course Google) with further revenues – a truly virtuous circle.
(Image from Dave Gray via Flickr)
This approach to business got me thinking about snowballs. Google provides the mountain and the initial push (its platform) but the gravity and momentum which perpetuate the motion of the snowball and cause it to grow are provided by individual sites which profit from the platform that Google has created. The snowball continues to grow as it travels down this never-ending slope and all the time Google makes money without having to do anything except ensure that the slope is steep enough to maintain the snowball’s descent (ie. by continuing to provide access to the platform). The platform continues to grow because Google has millions of snowballs hurtling down virtual mountains all the time and a constant supply of new ones ready to roll off the summit.
Whether or not you’re a ‘platform business’, the ‘snowball’ theory can also be applied to marketing with our client Best Buy’s Twelpforce a great example of this approach in action. The objective is to commuicate to consumers that Best Buy’s Blueshirts are both helpful and knowledgeable – able to answer any technology question you can throw at them. One approach to this challenge would be to create an advertising campaign where friendly Blueshirts answer customers’ queries leaving the viewer at home with the impression that if they too had a technology question (and happened to be near the store), an equally helpful Blueshirt would do the same for them.
But creating advertising campaigns is costly and time consuming as well as finite (once it’s been on air, the campaign must be refreshed with another campaign which is equally costly and time-consuming to produce). Twelpforce is a smarter solution to the challenge because it is a marketing platform. An ever-growing ‘snowball’ of content is created by the interactions between customers and Blueshirts and every such interaction (preserved on the Twelpforce feed) acts to further reinforce the message that the Blueshirts know their stuff. The other benefit is that rather than creating an advertising conceit which must grab the attention of a disinterested viewer and be suitably convincing to overcome any cynicism they may have as to the expertise of the Blueshirts, Twelpforce is a useful service which allows them to experience Blueshirt expertise firsthand rather than take Best Buy’s word for it. This level of audience participation causes the snowball to grow as people who use the service and find it useful, use it again and recommend it to their friends, creating self-perpetuating content tangibly demonstrating Blueshirt service credentials.
Other examples of self-perpetuating, ‘snowballing’ marketing content includes MyStarbucksIdea (Starbucks is made to look like it values its customer’s opinions as well as receiving handy innovation tips thanks to content created by its customers) and The Best Job in the world (Toursim Queensland created the platform in the form of the competition but the snowball of publicity for them was generated by the eager participants).